Now that the chill has settled over the Canadian Shield and the Prairies, the ice is more crisp-as are the passes-and it is finally time for the Masochist to return and review this so-called "new" NHL; to see if it is, in fact, "new" and/or improved.
Way back in the summer of 2004, just prior to the season that wasn't, I examined the NHL's proposed rule changes. I suggested that a shootout, among other European-style changes, would help bring back some zest to the game. There are still so-called hockey purists out there who think that deciding the game on a "gimmick" is cheap and tawdry. I say, what is wrong with a little flash? Marek Malik-a slow, rumbling defenceman for the New York Rangers-scored one of the prettiest goals ever during a shootout, pulling the puck back between his own legs and then lifting the shot over the goalie (if you want to see where Malik got the idea in the first place, here's a link to a video of Robert Kysela's goal in the 2001 Czech playoffs). You'd never get to see that in overtime; Malik probably wouldn't even be on the ice, and if he were, he wouldn't be that close to the opposition's net.
Further, a shootout is not a gimmick. It is part of the rules of the game. Hockey is made up of arbitrary rules (you can't pass a certain line before the puck; you can hit a guy with your shoulder, but you can't grab him with your arm; you can only hit the puck with your stick if the puck is below the level of the crossbar of the net) upon which all players must agree in order to make the game more entertaining to both play and watch. It may be tremendously annoying to watch the Leafs outplay the Senators for sixty minutes, only to have Jason Allison do his impression of a broken-down tractor in the shootout and not be able to score-but how is that any different from outplaying a team for fifty-nine minutes and having them score a garbage goal in the dying seconds to win? It's unfortunate, yes; but it's not unfair.
I do agree, however, that playoff games should not be decided by shootouts. When winning or losing the game will decide whether or not your team plays again, both sides deserve the broadest chance to win. A shootout is quick and dirty-a good way to divide up the mibs-but when you are playing for all the marbles, it's better to play the long game.
The rule changes regarding goaltenders are also up for debate. The new rules allow goalies to handle the puck behind their own net and in front of the icing line, but not behind the icing line in the corners (talk about arbitrary). The size of the keepers' equipment has been reduced as well. I had previously written that goalies should not only be allowed to roam, but to hit as well, and that smaller equipment would privilege talent. The verdict in the "new" NHL comes down to the fact that good goalies can still dominate the game. Stats are up across the board, shutouts are down, but a hot goalie can still steal the show. The only problem so far seems to be the high incidence of groin injuries. The Atlanta Thrashers alone have two goalies out with the same ailment. The culprit is likely the strain that comes from having to push the pads those extra inches.
Some of the other rule changes aren't really changes at all-they are simply a return to following the existing rules. It is these changes, however, that have had the biggest impact on the NHL. The referees are calling every little tap and tug, achieving the league's goal of eliminating sluggish neutral zone play and giving the game more "flow." For a while, this resulted in such odd phenomena as defenceman Brian McCabe leading the league in scoring. McCabe is great, but he's no Bobby Orr-he was simply the beneficiary of being the point-man on a very active and successful Leafs power play. The naysayers will argue that too many power plays interrupt the flow of the game just as much as all the clutching and grabbing, but to me that sounds like they're just looking for something to complain about. Like shootouts, power plays are both exciting and part of the game-there's no abomination here.
The elimination of the no-two-line-pass rule has contributed to the speed to the game as well, as has reinstating the tag-up offside. You'll recall that the Masochist said this would be a good idea, and it has turned that way. Longer passes are springing players not only on breakaways but on regular rushes as well; the forwards don't have to stop at the centre-ice red line and therefore have more speed going into the zone. The tag-up offside cuts down on whistles and keeps the offensive team on the rush, as opposed to setting up a cycle deep in the zone after a face-off-the resulting play is much faster and more exciting.
But the best thing about the "new" NHL is the emergence of so many good young players, led by a double-cohort of rookies. These youngsters have had time to mature and improve their skills without the glare of TV lights at every game. During the lockout, players like Alex Steen, Tomas Vanek, Marek Svatos, Petr Prucha, Brad Boyes-and goalies like Henrik Lundquist, Ray Emery, Jason Labarbera and Antero Nittymaki-played in the AHL or in Europe, and this has certainly helped their careers and the game. The top two rookie scorers, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, are getting their first taste of North American professional hockey, and they are dominating play. Jason Spezza, who is battling Jaromir Jagr for top overall scorer in the league, is only in his third year of professional hockey.
Some might say that all these rule changes amount to little more than moving in the fences in baseball-more home runs sell more tickets-but does that really matter? Hockey is only a game, not a sacred rite (though fans sometimes treat it like one), and in the end it is all about entertainment. And I am much more entertained!
John Lofranco takes breaks from rigorous training to push the limits of sports writing for Maisonneuve. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by John Lofranco.